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The Loneliness of the Long Haul Novel Writer

The Loneliness of the Long Haul Novel Writer

by Graham Bishop

Open University lecturer Graham Bishop discusses the difference between the tools of the trade which writers of fiction and course book writers must master.

Having just had a whole career in education trashed in a single pithy sentence by one my daughters —"Why don't you write a novel instead of all those boring French text books?" — I decided to take up the challenge. How hard could it be? I was used to the discipline of writing, but also to the fact of belonging to a team. Would writing fiction be that much different to writing course books or would it be a whole new experience?

New courses at the Open University are written collaboratively by authors writing drafts and then coming together in teams; when writing fiction you are on your own. So the first change I became aware of was a sense of freedom - no fixed template, no boundaries, no set syllabus (plot in this case) or parameters to observe, just a blank page.

On the other hand there is no ready-made support group to help and to make suggestions at review meetings. The 'loneliness of the long haul novelist' was a hurdle to overcome.

To change my textbook mindset and to seek a support group, I joined a creative writing class and went to workshops at literary festivals. Both types of support were helpful and sociable.

There are so many good writers out there, all writing for pleasure and hoping one day to be published. And it was stimulating, if nerve-racking at the start, to be able to exchange ideas with others by reading out extracts from my own work and receive instant feedback.

I soon discovered at the workshops that established authors give do not work to the same pattern. There are those who recommend that you work out the plot in detail before you start. Others suggest that it is enough to know the beginning and the end and to let the characters take you along the path from one to the other. A third group say just start writing; all you need is a beginning, but not necessarily an end.

Then there are the characters. Some authors prefer to write a back story for each character before they start — a whole biography: physical description, family circumstances, career and way of thinking.

Others say that in real life you get to know people gradually and that your first impressions may change, so they suggest you bring your characters in to the story in a similar way. Both you and your reader(s) will get to know them bit by bit and maybe change your minds about whether you like them or not.

For my first attempt at a novel, I adopted the combination which came naturally to me: a beginning and an end, no preconceived idea of how to get there and no real idea of the characteristics of the main players.

So many authors tell you the characters will take over and lead you through in unexpected ways, that I felt I should test the theory. I knew I personally would have to write, at least at first, a story which would be essentially plot led, rather than character led.

Nonetheless the characters did take over and lead me into unexpected twists in the plot. At one workshop on crime writing the author recommended that whenever you got stuck, it was time to kill off someone else in the story!

Another piece of advice I adopted immediately was to 'write about things you know because it lends conviction and authority to your writing'.  I was also conscious that I had to master implementing the adage to 'show, not tell'. Not easy at the start.

Unlike text book writing, where the 'plot' consists of a pre-set syllabus to cover and continuity is guaranteed, I quickly discovered that allowing the plot to evolve organically makes it all the more important to keep continuity records.

By using flowcharts - I am a very visual thinker - I kept a variety of records. As each character developed, I added details to a file of what they wore, what they looked like, what they had done in the past and what they were doing in the story, how they reacted and how they spoke.

Similarly for the plot itself, and the subplots, I had to keep a tight hold on the time-line, on who knew what when and on the clues dropped for the reader.

         Other useful records were a chapter by chapter plot summary, so I could refer back quickly to check details, a spell check of the foreign place names and a map of relationships between the characters.

Fiction writing is definitely more of an adventure than course book writing. Especially the research, which is so important if you are to convince your reader that you know what you are writing about. This involved moving into new areas of knowledge which in turn made the experience even more pleasurable.

Throughout the revising and redrafting process, I became better at spotting repeated wording and over-use of adjectives and adverbs. 'Find and replace' became a frequently used tool, as I learned to reduce the inclusion of 'that' as a relative pronoun, especially in speech. It was also a revelation to discover how many times I had used words like 'then' and 'now' unnecessarily.

My first 'test-bed' novel still lies in a drawer. My second is exposed to public gaze - I think I have learned a lot. The main elements of the story - rival art collectors, the theft to order of ancient artefacts, piracy, murder, Italian tomb robbers, Interpol detectives - make up the ingredients of an international thriller set mostly against the backdrop of a sea chase round the Greek islands and the legend, (or is it fact?), of the Trojan War. The result, Achilles' Helmet, is now available as an eBook, so you can judge for yourself if I have been successful.